There is no statute of limitations for murder—or for plagiarism

Doctoral theses stay on library shelves, even if they are frauds. How do universities handle these cases?
Stefano Pollio via Unsplash

Guttenberg, Schavan, von der Leyen, and recently Giffey as well—all prominent politicians whose dissertations have caused a lot of uproar due to accusations of plagiarism. Their dissertations have been read cover to cover, every sentence scrutinised. The ensuing debates as to whether such titles should be removed from the stacks show that there are no clear answers. Instead, they only create more questions: How many doctoral degrees are revoked in Germany each year? How should libraries handle dissertations in their catalogues that have been proven fraudulent? What is the best way to communicate about plagiarism?

Libraries need to face plagiarism

There are no public statistics on how many doctoral degrees are revoked each year. “Apart from individual cases, we know little about what is happening in practice. We need reliable information in order to have an objective discussion on the matter,” says Professor Stephan Rixen. The lawyer and spokesman of the German Research Ombudsmen committee explains that the issue is complex: “It isn’t like a doctoral degree is revoked, and then everything is fine. The credibility of the academy itself suffers, and academic discourse can be impacted seriously by non-academic publications. The question is: How should the academy handle these kinds of incidents?”

As of yet, there is no clear answer. In 2014, the Deutsche Bibliotheksverband (German Library Association) did publish a “Stellungnahme zum Umgang mit wissenschaftlichen Publikationen, die Plagiate enthalten” (Position paper on dealing with academic publications containing plagiarism), recommending that libraries append a note to their catalogues. The purpose of the note is to indicate “that the work was originally accepted as a dissertation, although the individual’s doctoral title has now been revoked, with the date of the decision and the name of the board that made the decision”. Ultimately, however, the Bibliotheksverband is only an umbrella organisation, and its recommendations are non-binding.

There is no generally accepted way to handle plagiarism

“Libraries do not yet have generally accepted routines for deciding what to do with such dissertations,” Rixen explains. However, this is not primarily the fault of the libraries themselves. First of all, some universities do not publicly disclose when a doctoral degree is revoked. They seem to prefer to keep such academic “incidents” to themselves, and are not obligated to inform university committees. “You cannot expect libraries to constantly investigate these cases,” Rixen says. How can libraries know if an accepted dissertation has been revoked?

In addition, even if a library is informed when a degree is revoked, the legal status of these dissertations is unclear. The introduction of the new GDPR in May 2018 made the problem even worse: What is allowed under the new law? Can libraries place a slip of paper in a dissertation stating that the author’s degree has been revoked? Are they allowed to add a note to the online catalogue? Or are these kinds of responses illegal under data protection law? What is more important, the author’s personal rights or the public’s right to information? As Rixen notes, “Of course, even people who have engaged in academic misconduct are still individuals with their own personal rights.” In this respect, adding a note to the database “is a delicate topic, but these kinds of notes are essential to maintaining academic integrity, and the GDPR does not prohibit them,” Rixen emphasises.

Armin Talke also believes that notes are a good academic practice, even though they are “controversial”. The expert in legal issues at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin notes the underlying problem with adding entries to the online catalogue: “You can easily find the note stating that the author has lost their doctorate in the online catalogue via web search engines. This means the lost title will follow that person around for their entire lives. That makes it an even more long-lasting punishment than for crimes like personal injury, which are deleted from the Federal Central Criminal Register after a certain length of time.”

Crimes committed by a sex offender or a thief are deleted from the Federal Central Criminal Register, police good conduct certificates, and law enforcement authorities’ documents after a certain period of time, allowing the person to be resocialised. Losing a doctoral title, however, could result in lifelong condemnation. To put it bluntly: The statute of limitations for manslaughter is 20 years. It seems the only crimes that never expire are murder and a plagiarised dissertation. Is this just?

According to Talke, another important weakness is that notes are not entered for all kinds of academic publications, but only for dissertations. With international dissertations, libraries are unable to track academic violations found after the dissertation is published. For Talke, this is “a certain level of injustice you just have to live with.”

Neither Talke nor Rixen feel removing such works and references to them from libraries and catalogues is a useful option: “That would be an attack on academic freedom,” Rixen believes, noting that academic misconduct has now itself become the subject of research. What is to be done?

Plagiarised dissertations may be labelled

Searching for a solution, the German Research Ombudsmen and German Library Association have written a joint legal opinion to deal with exactly this issue. Dr Rolf Schwartmann, Head of the Cologne Research Institute for Media Rights at the Technical University of Cologne was commissioned to write the opinion. Schwartmann, who chairs the German Association for Data Protection and Data Security, is also a member of the German government’s Data Ethics Commission. In his opinion, titled “Datenschutzrechtliche Zulässigkeit der Kenntlichmachung des Entzugs eines Doktorgrades in (Online-)Bibliothekskatalogen” (Permissibility of labelling revoked doctoral degrees in [online] library catalogues), he concludes that multiple German states already meet the requirements for justifying a public notice when a doctoral degree is legally revoked. However, to clear up any doubts, he recommends enacting a regulation in all federal states clarifying that such notices are legal.

Rixen believes that “only a concise, clearly formulated law will allow us to ensure that such notes are actually added to the library catalogue.” Professor Debora Weber-Wulff, a plagiarism researcher from Berlin, welcomes his opinion. “A public label could be an effective tool for dissuading would-be plagiarists,” she hopes. She also feels the opinion is “logical” in concluding that notes should indicate why the doctoral degree was revoked, “so that future readers know exactly what they are dealing with.”

Weber-Wulff believes that universities must learn “that revoked dissertations or postdoctoral qualifications do not damage their reputations. Quite the opposite: Excellent universities don’t tolerate plagiarism! They train their communities on good academic practices, promote a culture of citation, and enact sanctions quickly and reliably when they discover academic misconduct.”

However, it may take some time for legal changes to be enacted and for the public’s mentality to change. When they do, we are likely to see more remarks like the one on Guttenberg’s dissertation, warning readers: “The author’s doctoral degree was revoked on 23 February 2011 by the doctoral committee of the Legal and Economics Department of the University of Bayreuth. No longer considered an accepted dissertation”—assuming the plagiarism is even uncovered. That, of course, is another matter altogether.